Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Blogger - L.E. Butler, The Powder Keg: The Ballets Russes in America

Today on History Undressed, we are welcoming L.E. Butler who is here to dazzle us on the American Ballet.

The 1898 short movie How the Ballet-Girl was Smuggled into Camp opens with two US soldiers rolling a great barrel marked sugar into a crowd of puzzled comrades. The barrel opens to reveal the eponymous ballet-girl—chipmunk-cheeked, pompadoured--who begins dancing and mugging.

An American stereo-viewer slide from 1900 shows a similar dancer; the accompanying text describes a callow youth who ditches his fiancée for this ballet-girl. When the ex-fiancée accompanies this youth to the music-hall to get a look at her rival, the ballet-girl responds with shock at the sight of them together.

“What,” said the infatuated young man to his ex- fiancée, “do you know my beauteous charmer?”
“Sure,” said his ex-fiancée, “she used to do our washing.”

The punchline depends on our snobbery, and gives us an insight into the general perception of a ballet-girl or “toe-dancer” in that era. Hardly considered a fine art, ballet was popular entertainment in its lowest form. The young women struggling with the demands of training, rehearsing, touring—not to mention complex relationships with patrons—were seen as pretentious, grasping courtesans with day jobs.

To be fair, ballet performances in early 20th-century America didn’t inspire awe. Ballet schools were non-existent. Technique was passed down from the occasional visiting European ballerina such as the Milan-trained Giuseppina Morlacchi, who recruited and trained local girls in New York and Boston to serve as copryphées for her American tours in the late 1860s. Chorus girls in the Western states imported soft Crait pointe shoes and improvised, with mixed results. Edison’s Black Maria films of ballet dancers show us how charm and enthusiasm sometimes made up for deficiencies in technique.

Half a world away, in St. Petersburg, ballet was serious business. Throughout the 19th century, the Imperial family had imported some of the strongest dancers of La Scala—most notably Pierina Legnani of the 32 fouetté turns and Enrico Cecchetti, who showed audiences that male dancers could be virtuosos as well. The Imperial Ballet School was supported generously by the Tsar, and the children chosen for training entered into an ascetic, regimented life. Boys and girls were segregated, and under the tireless gaze of governesses the pupils were marched from lessons to meals to prayers to bed. Ballerina Tamara Karsavina described how the windows were frosted—according to school legend, this happened after a young girl exchanged glances with a soldier, fell in love, and ran away.

It wasn’t simply a love of dance that motivated Russian pupils—and their parents. Becoming a dancer in the Imperial Ballet meant that you had a place in society; you were entering the lowest level of the Tsar’s civil service. Pupils performed privately for the Tsar—sometimes in Catherine the Great’s private Chinese Theater or the Winter Palace—after which they were served almond milk and chocolates by the Tsar’s own servants. Dancers received decent pay and a guaranteed pension.

While these dancers were safe from the poverty and degradation that dogged Western ballet-girls, we can see the dark side of this patronage in the frank pimping of newly graduated ballet dancers among the Russian aristocracy. Between 1900-1905, the Grand Duke Vladimir and his companions were allowed special access to rehearsals to meet the new talent. As an adolescent, the prodigy Vaslav Nijinsky was kept by several older male lovers—on their patronage his entire family, including a brother in an asylum, survived.

The Russian producer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev served as a catalyst who would change the relationship between dancers and their audiences for good. An aristocratic dilettante with phenomenal charisma and even better connections, Diaghilev assembled an exhibition of Russian art in St. Petersburg in 1905. In 1907 and 1908 he produced concerts of Russian music in Paris.

Charged by his success, and by a new infatuation with Nijinsky, he mounted the now legendary concert of the Ballets Russes in Paris in May 1909. The audience, primed the previous seasons by the lush sounds of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chaliapin, were astounded by these fresh ballets. The program consisted of traditional favorites from the Imperial stage: Prince Igor, Armida’s Pavillion, and a suite of dances called Festin.

“The very air around the Russian season is intoxicated,” was how Diaghilev characterized their coup. In the first performance, the orchestra had to be stopped after each solo while the audience exhausted itself with applause. The usually laconic Figaro rhapsodized; Marcel Prévost pointed out how the Russian artists shamed the “decadent” performers of France. Karsavina, one of the prima ballerinas, wrote that “Paris was captivated by the barbaric splendour of frenzied movements…the naïve spontaneity of Russia, the studied ornateness of the East.”

Returning to St. Petersburg triumphant, Diaghilev might have decided to rest on his laurels—stick with the same program, hire the same artists. He had no shortage of patrons, and the Imperial Ballet allowed him to borrow as many performers as he liked during their off season. Already another Paris season was planned, and other cities in Europe and America clamored for bookings as well.

But this was not an age for moderation and good judgment. In preparation for the next tours, the young and irrepressibly idiosyncratic composer Igor Stravinsky was commissioned to write a new score for the choreographer Fokine—which was to become the Firebird. An erotic ballet-drama was set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Subsequent seasons brought increasing “succès de scandale,” including Nijinsky’s first attempt at choreography in Afternoon of a Faun, in which he shocked audiences as the unsettlingly animalistic faun who masturbates with a nymph’s abandoned scarf, baring his teeth with his orgasm.

The most famous of these scandals was the debut performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris on 29 May 1913. Nijinsky was choreographer. Once the curtain opened, revealing a dancer in peasant costume standing knock-kneed with her palsied fists under her chin, a wiseass in the audience yelled: “Call a doctor!” Someone retorted, “A dentist!” Outraged balletomanes demanded silence—which only enflamed the peanut gallery. But peevish sarcasm gave way to pure chaos once Stravinsky’s frenetic music cast its spell. People cheered wildly, or hissed, or simply beat their palms on the railings in time with the music. Fist-fights broke out in the aisles between the fans and detractors. Poor mad Nijinsky’s stomping, circling choreography was roundly mocked. (We can guess at how little the ballet was enjoyed by his fellow dancers—all of whom promptly “forgot” the choreography and didn’t pass it on to eager dance historians.) Stravinsky reportedly fled the theater in tears. Diaghilev rushed backstage to turn the house lights on and off—a futile effort to calm the audience--while Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings, calling out the counts to his dancers. Afterwards, Diaghilev glided through the crowded theater lobby proclaiming, “It is exactly what I wanted to happen.”

Concurrently, American audiences were getting their first tastes of genuine ballet. Danish virtuoso Adeline Genee performed in Broadway musicals, and some of the Russian Imperial dancers had come on their own for brief engagements—including Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Mordkin, and Lydia Lopokova (or John Maynard Keynes’ wife, as she’s known here in England). Although these performances were largely ignored by serious art critics (indeed the only contemporary news stories of them appear to be gossip and “life-story” pieces), the performers were adored by the public for their technical mastery and for their fresh, unaffected presence on stage.

By the time the Ballets Russes arrived in 1916, America was gripped by what one New York paper called “Terpsichorean mania.” Indigenous phenomena such as Isadora Duncan and the recitalist Maud Allan (in her role of Salome) were mounting extravagant, thrilling productions. Loie Fuller, a pioneer of both dance and electric stage lighting, used radium and phosphorescent salts to create voluminous, light-emitting costumes for her performances. Broadway shows were becoming ever more elaborate, and in dance halls young partiers were obsessed with new dance crazes like the Turkey Trot and The Bear.

It was in this atmosphere of ambition and innovation that the Ballets Russes made their American debut. Diaghilev was determined that his ballets not be dismissed as “light entertainment,” and in addition to the provocative works already in the repertory, he commissioned a Futurist ballet from Leonid Massine, entitled The Sun of the Night.

Judith Mackrell describes the “wave of hysterical prurience” that greeted the first performances in New York. The Catholic Theater Movement helpfully created a buzz by demanding that the ballet Scheherazade be banned—beyond the sexual content itself, audiences were shocked that Adolph Bolm’s character was an African man wooing and embracing a Caucasian woman. The critic Grenville Vernon guessed that such a performance would be impossible in Southern states. Nijinsky’s Faun, the papers suggested, might want to reconsider the explicit pantomime.

Diaghilev could not have asked for better publicity.

Despite the clamor and outright hostility that greeted their tour across the states—Captain Ennis of the Kansas City Police told “Mr. Dogleaf” that he’d call down the curtain if need be—they continued throughout the US, to Latin America and South America, finally leaving again for Russia in 1917. Many of the artists chose to stay in the US, and more Russian ballet talent came West after the Revolution and Civil War, alone or with later incarnations of the Ballets Russes.

Had it not been for this mass influx of Russian artists, American dance might have gone in an altogether different direction. Ambitious, innovative spectacles characterized US dance at the turn of the 20th century, but the new standards of technique brought by the Russians—and Diaghilev’s insistence on collaboration with the highest caliber of designers and composers—opened entire new dimensions for expression.

The seams of today’s most exciting dance can be traced to this moment of collision. George Balanchine, one of the many émigrés who followed in the Ballets Russes’ wake, established a short-lived company called Les Ballets in 1933, and inspired the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein to fund America’s first proper ballet school—the School of American Ballet—in 1934. The San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, American Ballet Theater, and others followed, creating a distinctly American style of ballet—witty, muscular, quick, and not averse to showmanship.

The soldiers who, in 1898, rolled the barrel marked sugar into their camp, might have imagined they had the next best thing to a stripper in a cake. They could not have suspected that it was in fact a powder keg.

L.E. Butler is a writer and translator living in Yorkshire. For more information on Butler or to read excellent reviews of her novel, Relief, visit:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Medieval Lady's Closet

The title of this blog is quite misleading and for that I humbly apologize. You see, in medieval times, they didn’t actually have closets. Clothes were kept in wardrobes and chests—the latter being the case the majority of the time.

Women in the middle ages, wore a garment called a smock, later renamed chemise by the Normans, which is French for shirt. The term was very fitting, because a chemise is basically a very long shirt, or today would look like a woman’s slip. It was a flowing piece that reached the ankles and had long sleeves, over time it shortened in length and in sleeve. In the 1300’s it would become a little more snugger to show off the figure. It was often made of a thin fine linen or silk material. She would not wear any ‘panties’ under the chemise. Yup, she was naked as the day she was born.

Historians are unsure if women wore stays (corset) in the early medieval days or not. There has been some hinting to it, besides dresses being so narrow of waist it is hard to imagine they didn’t have one, but also an illustration of a demon who was wearing a corset, which was done in the 12th century. Most likely instead of a separate garment, bones, or wooden slats were sewn into the actual gown.

We do know that stays or corsets were worn later on and still worn today, although it isn’t a part of women’s fashion. They were quite popular in the Elizabethan eras as well as the Regency and Victorian times. Corsets were made out of linen fabric that was stiffened with busks of wood or whalebone. It was then laced up the back. Depending on the style at the time, the corset would either flatten the breasts, or push them up to enhance them. Throughout history these contraptions, being tied so tightly, have been the subject of jokes and were a great risk to the health of women.

Pain is beauty, and for some women, it was painful to live. As it is today, being thin was popular in the past as well. Just so popular in fact that women would lace themselves so tight they could hardly breathe, and would pass out. Don’t even think about eating…

It was very popular to be able to span your own waist with your hands.

Petticoats came into popularity sometime in the earlier 1500’s. It was an under-skirt that was attached by laces to the corset. Their thickness depended on the skirts worn by the woman and the weather. As the gowns of women expanded it is said that the petticoats did as well. It wasn’t uncommon for a woman to wear three sets of petticoat skirts. Various materials and colors were used. Petticoats had a number of forms other than being simple skirts. The year is 1545 and in walks the farthingale. The material was made of the same thing as a skirt petticoat, but it was lined with wood, whalebone or wire, making it a wide cone shape.

As it does today, a lady’s fashion changed quite often. But what did stay the same throughout the middle ages was that she wore a long gown over another gown. The under-gown was referred to as a kirtle and would be seen through the over-gown or over-tunic. Slits were made in the sleeves or along the sides. These slits could be open or laced up to show the under-gown. Sometimes the over-tunic was slit from the hem up to the knee or thigh to show the under-gown.

Sleeves were long. In very early middle ages, 1100 – 1216 or so, sleeves were wide and hung lower, when they changed to a tighter fit at the wrist. Around 1300 the loose look came back, except this time her over-tunic would have slits in it hanging low, and her arms, sleeved in a tighter fitting kirtle would come through. By 1400 having long hanging sleeves was back with a vengeance.

Around the hips was worn a girdle, but not a girdle like the way we think of one. This was a type of loose belt that was used to enhance the outfit. Often a loop was attached to hold her small eating knife. Towards the end of the 1300’s this belt moved up from being worn loosely around the hips to being high-waisted, and tighter. By 1460, wearing your belt lower or higher was the fashion depending on your gown.

The bodice of her gown could be bejeweled, or have ornate buttons. It was fitted. It wasn’t until the 1400’s that a lower v-neckline became popular, along with laced up bodices. Prior to this necklines were either worn very high up the neck, or were more square in shape. Collars changed throughout history too. Folded collars coming into popularity around the 1400’s—sometimes turned up and sometimes turned down.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what the medieval lady might look like after taking at least 30-60 minutes to get dressed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Guest Blogger - Blair Bancroft on English Canals

Today on History Undressed I'd like to introduce guest author, Blair Bancroft (who also writes under the name, Daryn Parke).


As I returned to Orlando on a Virgin Atlantic 747, lost amid Brit travelers to Disneyworld, I had a revelation. I had just spent sixteen days without seeing, or talking to, another American. Although I’ve traveled from Bratsk, Siberia, to Machu Picchu, Peru, I’d never before been completely separated from my snug American culture. As much as I enjoyed the purpose of my journey—a valuable peek into England’s past—my plunge into modern middle-class Britain was the unexpected highlight of my trip.

For seven of those sixteen days I traveled back in time to the heyday of British canals, which in the last decade or so have been rescued, refitted, and are now booming vacation destinations. Definitely something the Brits like to keep as a closely guarded secret. The other week of my trip was spent driving around with a Brit friend as my guide, staying at Bed & Breakfasts, plus several days at a resort which boasted everything from ancient Roman ruins to a sixteenth century haunted castle to a helicopter pad.
For this blog, however, I’ll stick to my canalboat journey from Newbury to Bath. Canalboats - more correctly named narrowboats - are seventy feet long by a scant seven feet wide. Our “hotelboat” consisted of two narrowboats, one pulling the other. The areas the canals pass through have not changed all that much in the last two hundred years. The village houses are still primarily the same. There are long stretches of wilderness (even if a highway is just beyond the trees). A tow path still runs down one side of the canal, now used mostly by walkers and bicyclists. Our canal was a peaceful oasis, seemingly remote from the world. I loved it, but I can recommend it only to people who don’t mind traveling at 3 mph.

So why was I drifting down the Kennet & Avon Canal at 3 mph? Partly because I was totally enchanted by my short excursion on the Regents Canal in London in 2003, and partly because I recognized canals as a great untapped resource for authors who write books set after c. 1740. Britain’s vast network of canals was the country’s lifeline for transporting goods and supplies, such as coal, timber, limestone, and grain, and doing such mundane work as hauling away manure and trash from cities. They were serene pathways into the heartland when Britain’s roads were little more than rutted byways. Yes, there were tolls, based on tonnage hauled, and there were locks, locks, and more locks. But not until the height of the railway era in the mid to late nineteenth centuries did the canals begin to lose their grip on commercial transportation. (Coal was still being hauled by narrowboat and horse in London during the gas shortages of World War II.)
But after the canals were nationalized in 1948, they plunged into disuse and were rescued only by a law suit against the government and, later, by the determined efforts of a number of dedicated canal lovers. They have been lovingly restored and are now one of the Britain’s gems, primarily used for recreational purposes.
How did eighteenth century engineers create them? In most cases, very ingeniously. At the Crofton pumping station, the high point of the Kennet & Avon, I saw the two enormous boilers, lovingly preserved, and the three-story-high pumps that each moved one TON of water per scoop. Why? Because every time a lock is used, water drains downhill and must be sent back up in order for the lock system to function. Hence, pumping stations. I’ll spare you the details of digging canals, lining them so they don’t leak, and building lock after lock to raise or lower the water level as needed. Just know some truly intricate engineering was required.

To me, however, the most amazing construction feature is the aqueduct, something I always thought only carried water from a reservoir. But on Britain’s waterways an aqueduct carries an entire canal, with depth enough to float a narrowboat over a river, a railroad, or even a modern highway. Just picture an overpass strong enough to support a canal! The Dundas Aqueduct east of Bath is two hundred years old and working fine, thank you very much - a true testament to the engineering of the day.
What did I see besides other narrowboats? Mile after mile of alder, willow, hawthorn, poplar, and silver birch. Wild flowers and reeds of every description, from meadowsweet to brambles to bull-rushes (cat’s tails). Oodles of ducks, swans, and geese, though the only other birds I recognized were crows and herons. There were fields of grain and cows on the chalk downs at the top of our climb up from Newbury, jungle-like greenery on both ends of our trip. Most of the old village houses still exist, with some of the ancient barge inns still functioning as public houses. Others, including the lock-keeper cottages, are now private homes; one old warehouse has been turned into a theater. Basically, much of the canal is remarkably similar to what it was two hundred years ago. The main differences, our boat had a motor instead of a horse on the towpath and the locks are brick-lined instead of mostly turf. And we had the luxury of three meals a day served on china around a dining table, plus “elevenses” and afternoon tea delivered on trays by a fleet-footed crew member moving along a six-inch catwalk at the side of the boat.
And, oh yes, we had to open and close every one of seventy-two locks ourselves. Lock-keepers are a thing of the past. That means opening giant wooden levers on each side of the lock, usually by “putting the bum to it.” The boats move into the lock, side by side. The rear lock gates then have to be closed. After that, the sluices are racheted open, using a windlass. When the water level inside the lock is even with the direction in which the boat is moving, the front locks are opened - and then closed after our boats moved through. This is why I cannot recommend do-it-yourself canalboating unless you have at least four strong backs to help with the locks or are traveling in tandem with another boat. The Newbury to Bath section of the K & A canal is famous for the Caen Hill flight of locks - twenty-nine in a row that take all day to negotiate. Fascinating, but tough. Even with everyone helping, our twenty-something crew was done in by the time we reached the bottom of the hill. (We traveled just behind two boats in which one of the wives was nearly hysterical about this was NOT what she planned for her vacation!)
Was it worth it? Oh, yes! Even though, as I tried to board a train in Gatwick two days after the early July bombings, I was suddenly confronted with a phalanx of very tall men in uniform, carrying very large guns, and telling me to get out, the train station was being shut down. Fortunately, the shut-down was short (an abandoned suitcase), and I made it to Newbury without difficulty. The efficiency and frequency of British train service is a whole ‘nother topic; I cannot praise it too highly.
For those who would like to know more about canal journeys in Britain, I heartily recommend the web site of my hotelboat: http://www.hotelboat/ Or for general info on narrowboats, try http://www.flagships.co.uk/ For more details about the joys and hazards of traveling by canalboat, feel free to contact me at blairbancroft@aol.com.

Blair’s books and other articles can be found at http://www.blairbancroft.com/ & http://www.darynparke.com/

Blair’s latest: Steeplechase, a traditional Regency & Tarleton’s Wife, a Regency historical - both available at http://www.jasminejade.com/

Writing as Daryn Parke, The Art of Evil, a hardcover mystery from Five Star.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Regency Games

Travel back to Regency England…roughly 1811-1820. You’ve been invited to a couple of parties at the most elite homes in London. Let us explore what types of games you might indulge in on your night of frivolity. Gambling was ‘the thing’ so a lot of times your games would be met with a wager.

Evening Card Party…

Tables have been set out, and games are being played by both men and women. What games you asked? Why Faro, Commerce, Cribbage, Ecarte, Loo, Pharo, Piquet, Speculation, Whist, Vingt-et-Un (sometimes Vingt-Un). Card games were sometimes played on a wager, and other times for fun.

Imbibe on delicious snacks, cheeses, fruit, breads, pastries, and other delectable treats are being passed around. There will be wine to drink as well as sherry for the ladies and port wine for the gentleman.

Evening Parlour Games...

Snapdragon – raisins were placed in a bowl of heated sherry and then set on fire. The object of the game was to pluck the raisins out and eat them without getting burned. Popular during the winter and on Christmas Eve.

Bouts-Rimees – a rhyming game. Players would have to come up with impromptu rhymes. There was a preset list of rhyming words, and eat player would have to come up with a verse to go with the words. Also called Wit.

Charades – self explanatory.

Blind Man’s Bluff – either a man or woman is blind-folded. Another player is placed in a chair. The blindfolded person must use their hands to touch and feel the other person to figure out who they are. This game could be innocent or very scandalous!

Le Baiser à la Capucine – A French kissing game, and quite scandalous! Also called, guessing the kiss…

Chess – Often played with a wager…and in a more scandalous setting could be played for clothing.

Shades – simply having a person sit with a candle outlining their profile – casting a shadow onto a blank piece of paper. The other player would then trace their profile. This could be quite funny depending the shapes of the shadows and if a person was making a funny face.

Know of any other fun games? Naughty or nice…